The presence of Jesus puts in the hands of a youth leader the most powerful tool in the Youth Ministry “Toolbox.” It connects to one of the deepest desires of the human heart: the longing for nearness to God without shame. Young believers long for the assurance of something deeper than being “saved” by God; they long for the assurance that God enjoys them as well! “I believe that God loves me,” I’ve had many students assert, tentatively, “I believe that God loves me,” and then they add, “But does He like me?”
There often is, unfortunately, a huge disparity between these two seemingly similar ideas. For many Christian teenagers, love means “unconditional forgiveness” when they sin or make a mistake. Somewhere in their mind they know that “Jesus paid the price to forgive me of my sins.” Usually this is what caused them to respond to the message of the gospel in the first place. But they often believe that God loves them because He has to. Love is who He is and what He does. But His love has nothing to do with them. God loves because He loves, not because they are lovable. As they grope for understanding about this Heavenly Father that loves them enough to save them from hell, forgive their sins, and help them make life work, the question remains: “Does He like who I am?”
Teenagers often know experientially what it’s like to deal with someone you love, but struggle to like. They often have to cope with angry, weak, broken, and at times (in their worldview) irrational parents. They struggle with whether or not their fickle friends like them. They feel they have to project a “false self” because if their friends discovered who they really are and what they are really like, they will hate them. And at times they experience how “un-enjoyable” they are to their parents, friends and even themselves. So they subsequently project onto their relationship with God how they see and experience the relationships in their world.
Teens lack confidence, but crave it deeply. Often they project an air of confidence, but just beneath the surface lurks deep insecurity and fear. They try to gravitate toward others who project confidence, but find that those people feel as insecure and fearful as they do. As youth leaders, we know that real confidence resides in the presence of Jesus. His presence reveals to us, and to young people, not only the reality that Jesus forgives sin because of the Cross, but why He chose the Cross in the first place. This is the secret every teenager (and youth worker!) deeply desires to know: Jesus went to the cross because He loves each of us individually, and everyone He loves, He likes!
Even in their insecurity, fear, weakness and immaturity, Jesus likes teens. When they step into His presence they find that He is gentle with them in their failures, and He enjoys them even in their weakness and immaturity. “We love because first He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). As teens enter in to and experience Jesus’ presence, not only do they find Him lovable and unconditionally loving, but they also discover that His love in them gives them a huge dose of confidence to love themselves and those around them.
Fear of rejection and the trauma of shame create powerful strongholds in the minds and emotions of teens. They feel that God has rejected them because they have gone too far to be forgiven. Those around them shame them, so they assume that God does too. However, I have seen Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3: 16-19 radically transform teens’ lives when they internalize the truth of it and grasp the depth of it for themselves. It breaks the strongholds, and moves them from rejection and shame to acceptance and confidence. Right here in these verses, teens have what they need to dive deep into the presence of Jesus:
“I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Teenagers will only be satisfied as they step into the presence of Jesus. Jesus longs to satisfy their deepest longings to be enjoyed. He wants them to know He enjoys them and pursues them. When they discover that then they can freely and fully enjoy Him. As they experience the presence of Jesus in their thoughts, emotions and choices, they will resolve to “go all the way” in loving Jesus.
David Sliker has ministered to youth and young adults for over twenty years, preaching nationally and internationally at youth events, camps, and conferences. Currently, David is a senior leader, teacher, and author at the International House of Prayer Mission Base in Kansas City, Missouri, where he lives with his wife, Tracey, and their four children. He also serves alongside Lou Engle and TheCall as the Executive Director of the Elijah Revolution, a national conference and equipping ministry for teenagers.